Keeping the Faith

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Catholic education tries to head off an identity crisis.

Providence, R.I.

Susan Round is squeezing in a few extra minutes of a lesson on homonyms before her 2nd grade class breaks for lunch on a Friday afternoon at the pre-K-3 Bishop McVinney Regional School in Providence.

On the blackboard she writes "two, to, and too" and tells her students to explain the difference. She does the same with "sea and see."

In large round letters, she then writes "piece" and asks for another spelling. From a squat wooden desk, a student recites: "P-E-A-C-E."

"I want you to think about the word and think of people that remind you of that word," she tells them. "Who reminds you of it?"

"Martin Luther King," call out several students, knowing their Roman Catholic school will be closed the following Monday to honor the slain civil rights leader.

"Anyone else?" Round presses, bending toward the mostly brown faces.

"God," one student says.

"Anyone else?" she repeats.

"Jonah," calls out another.

"Fantastic," says Round, straightening up. "And what did Jonah do?"

"Go to Nineveh," several chime in.


"To tell the people to stop behaving badly."

"Did the people of Nineveh follow the Ten Commandments?"

"No!" they shout.

"Did Martin Luther King follow the Ten Commandments?"


"Yes," repeats Round, with emphasis. "So that's why we think of him as a peaceful person."

The class wraps up with the students standing by their desks to sing a song about the Hebrew prophet, the 2nd graders pumping their arms to the chorus, "Go Jonah,Go. Go, Go, Go." Dressed in white and yellow shirts, with brown sweaters and plaid jumpers for the girls, Round's class then lines up at the door and heads downstairs for lunch.

Even with the teacher and students now gone, it's obvious that this is a classroom in a religious school. A copy of the Ten Commandments, handwritten on white laminated poster-size paper, is tacked up between two windows across from the blackboard. A large piece of student artwork hangs in one corner displaying crayon drawings of cloaked figures ascending into the sky. A sign at the top reads: "Acts of kindness help us climb the stairway to heaven."

Many years ago, this environment would have seemed foreign to Round.

Although she did not grow up "with a strong Catholic identity," Susan Round is now expected to fill a position traditionally held by nuns.

Growing up here, she never attended a Catholic school. In fact, she turned down her parents' offer to send her to a parochial secondary school, preferring instead to attend the city's highly competitive public school, Classical High School. While their neighbors were adamant about attending mass together each week, Round's parents rarely went to church. She attended services regularly with an older cousin.

Although she says she did not grow up "with a strong Catholic identity," Round is now a principal-in-training who will be expected to fill a position traditionally held by nuns who came of age immersed in the traditions of parochial schools and religious convents.

In fact, the Diocese of Providence sees hope in Susan Round. If a lay person with her background can lead a class, and eventually a school, without losing sight of its religious mission, then Catholic education can avoid what might otherwise be seen as an impending identity crisis.

But the diocese didn't wind up with principal candidates like Round by accident. The teacher is now in the second half of a 4-year-old leadership-training program designed to teach lay faculty the particulars of running a Catholic school.

Principal candidates attend sessions over two years on such issues as parochial school finance, marketing, communications strategies, teacher hiring and evaluations, and "Catholic identity." In the candidate's second year, a principal is assigned to him and her as a mentor. That principal allows the candidate to sit in on and help plan faculty meetings, meet with parents about disciplinary problems, and carry out other administrative duties.

Since its inception in the 1993-94 school year, the Providence leadership-training program has placed 27 of its 35 "graduates" into principal or assistant principal positions throughout the diocese. Round is one of 25 principal candidates currently in the program.

"It wouldn't have worked to just send us out to take courses on school management," Round says. "This program has built up my confidence. It's the only reason I've gone this far."

A growing number of the country's dioceses and archdioceses are designing similar programs, particularly as they hire more lay people with little or no Catholic school experience to fill administrator's positions.

"I don't think there's an educator in the country that isn't thinking: Where are we going to get the right kind of people to do in Catholic education in the future what we did in the past?" says Sister Maria Ciriello, the dean of the school of education at the University of Oregon in Portland and the editor of three widely used volumes on training Catholic school principals.

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